Thursday, August 02, 2007

Dr. Thursday's Thursday Post

During the recent conference, there were break-out sessions, and I attended the Aidan Mackey talk, not knowing if he'd ever make it across the pond again. However, there was another talk that hour on Heraldry, given by Dr. Peter Floriani, and from what I heard, it was excellent. And that ties in with today's post. And now, Dr. Thursday.

I have heard (from people who have reason to know) that the seminar on heraldry at the recent Chesterton Conference proved to be of interest to those who attended. The topic of heraldry may seem a bit unusual for the typical Americans to express such an interest - but then that's just because it sounds ancient. As if someone were to say something crazy, "Hey, let's write software for a cable TV company, and put Latin quotes on the main screen!" Or for a mother to say to her daughters, "Today, let's have a picnic lunch on the floor in the playroom!" But then we're so very, very, very Chestertonian. (And I hope you are, too.)

Anyway, since I happened to be at that seminar, I can tell you that heraldry is actually very well known in America - though perhaps not by that name. There are those two yellow upside-down U shapes one sees at the side of the road - it makes one thing of clowns eating hamburgers. There is that little curvy check-mark seen on all kinds of clothing, which means one has paid money to a sneaker company in approval of their efforts. And so on. There are also what we might call the "inverse" forms, where people who know nothing of the laws of heraldry have broken them, and so have made their attempt at communication futile: like white trucks with yellow lettering. Or, even worse, a certain state license plate is a pale color, upon which the license numbers are printed in white - hence they are nearly unreadable, even from close-up.

But what is heraldry? Why does it matter to Chestertonians?Click here to discover more about heraldry.Heraldry is simply the art and the science of symbol, but particularly serving as an identifier of a person, and of a family. The "coat of arms" which is simply a decorated form of the old shield of a knight, told everyone - even those who could not read - who that person was, just as surely as the yellow U's or curvy check-marks indicate ... uh ... what they indicate. Remember, advertising is just a form of communication, and its first principle is identification. (See Romans 10:14-15 for a Biblical justification for advertising!)

Speaking as a computer scientist, the real delight in heraldry is that it comes with a very elegant and technical way of describing those decorations: what the heralds call the "blazon" - that is, the "code" which specifies the colors and shapes and arrangements of the design:
"A blazon, like a chemical formula, means one thing, and one thing only, hence, every heraldic artist can make a correct drawing from it..."
[Julian Franklyn, Heraldry, 41]
But what does heraldry have to do with Chesterton?

It would be possible to cite many illustrations from Chesterton's work about heraldry. He relates one of the most dramatic, and intricate, pieces of history in his book on Chaucer:
The fashionable world, as we should put it, was divided into enthusiastic factions over a quarrel which had arisen about the legitimacy of a coat of arms, which then seemed almost as thrilling as the legitimacy of a child or a last will and testament. The arms borne by the great Border family of Scrope, in popular language a blue shield with a gold band across it (I can say 'azure a bend or' quite as prettily as anybody else) was found to have been also adopted by a certain Sir Thomas Grosvenor, then presumably the newer name of the two. The trial was conducted with all the voluminous detail and seething excitement of a Society divorce case; reams and rolls of it, for all I know, remain, in the records of the heraldic office, for anybody to read if he likes; though I have my doubts even about garter King-at-Arms. But somewhere in that pile of records there is one little paragraph, for which alone, perhaps, the world would now turn them over at all. It merely states that among a long list of witnesses, one 'Geoffrey Chaucer, gentleman, armed twenty-seven years', had testified that he saw the Golden Bend displayed before Scrope's tent in the battlefield of France; and that long afterwards, he had stopped some people in the streets of London and pointed to the same escutcheon displayed as a tavern sign; whereon they had told him that it was not the coat of Scrope but of Grosvenor. This, he said, was the first time he had ever heard tell of the Grosvenors. Such small flashes of fact are so provocative, that I can almost fancy he smiled as he said the last words.
[GKC, Chaucer CW18:214-5]
But this is America, you say. Fine. Let's see what we can find there...

There is one of the United States called "Maryland", which has a very nice flag: red, white, yellow, and black - all kind of shredded into a curious pattern. But it is nothing more than a very elegant statement about a man and his family: a man named Cecilius Calvert, who became Lord Baltimore. His father's father had a coat of arms which is blazoned:
Paly of six, Or and sable; a bend counterchanged.
This means six stripes alternating yellow (gold) and black, with a diagonal stripe cutting through them which reverses the colors of the underlying stripes. And his father's mother, who was named Crossland, had a coat of arms which is blazoned:
Quarterly argent and gules a cross botonny counterchanged.
This means four squares, white above red, red above white, on which is imposed a cross with triple rounds at each end - and this cross reverses the colors of the underlying squares.

The Maryland flag is Lord Baltimore's which is blazoned: Quarterly Calvert and Crossland. Just so you don't struggle, here is what it looks like:
So now you know. And, if you would like more information, there are many books which will help, but for a start you can check out Heraldry in America by Eugene Zieber, available from Dover Publications.


  1. My son (aged 16, one of the Persistent Frisbyterians) attended the Chesterton conference and the heraldry talk.

    After the conference, he spent a couple of his precious summer-vacation days designing heralds and writing blazons -- Dr. Floriani made quite an impression on him!

  2. Amazing, Del - but then heraldry (like all good arts) has that attraction, for young and for old!

    I forgot to mention that the "Studeo/Love-to-Learn" gang were there - they helped immensely by bringing crayons! See here for more.

    If you seek further details (like how those arms were done on a computer) or more book references, please inquire by e-mail via Nancy or the ACS (see links at side).

    It is to be hoped that this session will be repeated - but I know I'll have to remember to bring my own crayons if I go!

    --Dr. Thursday

  3. Inverse Heraldry: Attending to the symbols of heraldry alone, without noting there is such a thing as color contrasts.

  4. Interesting point about "inverse heraldry" - sometime I may say something more about that.

    But I thought I ought to clear up one point I made in the main post:

    There really is Latin being used in software for cable TV.

    I wrote about it here, some time ago, back when I had my own blogg.

    And although that company doesn't exist, the one I work for now is still using it.

    For more details, you'll have to wait for my book on Subsidiarity, still in development, though maybe I ought to say it's in Beta. Hee hee. (Though for some of us, "Beta" has a completely different meaning, especially with August 8 just two days away! Hee hee. If you don't understand, check out the very last posting on my blogg - and if you still don't understand, well, you'll have to wait for the book.)

    --Dr. Thursday.


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